Preparing Americans for the Jobs of the Future

The world of work is changing, and changing fast. Driverless trucks, robot hamburger flippers and cashier-less checkout counters are the visible signs of workplace automation. But the real danger is not a jobless future; rather, we must prepare Americans for the many jobs of the future where they will need to work smarter alongside machines.

In the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force report The Work Ahead, led by former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and former Michigan Governor John Engler, we argue the United States needs better pathways for all to thrive in the face of the seismic forces of innovation, automation and globalization. The challenge is to rebuild the link among work, opportunity and economic security. Americans could once be confident that hard work would bring reasonable material comfort, prospects for advancement and a secure retirement. Today that path is rockier.  Higher education is necessary for most Americans; for those in the workforce, fully one-third may need to change jobs or acquire new skills to keep pace with automation over the next decade.

Companies, colleges and governments should work together – as they are doing in states like Colorado – to ensure all students can continue beyond high school, and that education builds ladders to employment through paid internships and apprenticeships. Lifelong learning must be part of our workplace DNA, and those who lose jobs should have ready access to the new skills they will need to return to another, better job. Barriers to labor mobility must be lifted; a plumber or teacher certified in one state should be free to work in another. Finally, the benefits of a secure job – health insurance, sick leave, retirement savings – must be available to all working Americans.

Automation drives productivity, which is the foundation of rising living standards. We must embrace that future, but also ensure that all Americans enjoy its benefits.

-Edward Alden, Senior Fellow, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Project Director for the Independent Task Force Report The Work Ahead: Machines, Skills, and U.S. Leadership in the Twenty-First Century